Old Man's War

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Old Man's War
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author John Scalzi
Country United States
Language English
Genre Military science fiction novel
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 320 pp
ISBN 0-7653-0940-8
OCLC 56128607
813/.6 22
LC Class PS3619.C256 O43 2005
Followed by The Ghost Brigades

Old Man's War is a military science fiction and debut novel by John Scalzi published in 2005.[1] It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006.[2] It was optioned by Paramount Pictures in 2011.[3]

A sequel, The Ghost Brigades, was published in 2006, followed by two other books, The Last Colony (2007) and Zoe's Tale (2008). A further sequel, The Human Division, was published in serial form in early 2013 and then collected in print in May 2013. The next sequel is The End of All Things, to be released in 2015.[4]



The first-person narrative is about a soldier named John Perry and his exploits in the CDF (Colonial Defense Forces). Old Man's War is similar in overall structure to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War as it follows Perry's military career from CDF recruit to the rank of captain. It is set in a universe heavily populated with life forms (much like David Brin's Uplift Universe); colonists from Earth must compete for the scarce planetary real estate which is suitable for sustaining life. As such, Perry must learn to battle against a wide variety of aliens. While the soldiers in Starship Troopers and The Forever War relied on powered body armor to gain advantage over the aliens, the soldiers in Old Man's War have enhanced DNA and nanotechnology, giving them advantages in strength, speed, and endurance.


The novel tells the story of John Perry, a 75-year-old retired advertisement writer, who joins the Colonial Defense Forces who protect human interplanetary colonists. Applicants are required to sign a letter of intent when they are 65—which John and his now deceased wife Kathy had signed 10 years prior to the beginning of the story. After visiting his wife's grave to say good bye (as volunteers can never return to Earth) Perry takes a space elevator to the CDF's Henry Hudson, where he meets a group of fellow retiree volunteers who dub themselves the 'Old Farts'. Following a series of bizarre psychological tests, Perry's mind is ultimately transferred to a new body with enhanced musculature, green skin, and yellow (almost cat-like) eyes. This new body, based on his original DNA, has been modified for enormous strength and dexterity, and supplemented with several proprietary products including artificial blood, enhanced eyesight and other senses and most critically, a BrainPal—a neural interface that allows Perry to communicate with other members of the CDF via thought.

After a week of frivolity and orgies, Perry lands on Beta Pyxis III for basic training, during which the CDF's heritage in the United States armed forces is made clear when the recruits are taught the Rifleman's Creed. After Perry learns that his Master Sergeant adopted one of his advertisements from Earth as a mantra, Perry is given the dubious job of platoon leader during the weeks of training before he is shipped out to the CDF's Modesto. His first engagement is with the Consu, a fierce and incredibly intelligent, though religiously zealous, alien species. Perry improvises a tactic which enables the CDF to win this first battle quickly. This is soon followed by a number of battles with, among others, the Whaidians and the tiny Covandu. By the end of this last engagement Perry begins to suffer psychological distress over killing the Liliputian Covandu and accepts that he has transformed both physically and mentally.

Now a war-seasoned veteran, Perry then participates in the Battle for Coral. The CDF plans to rapidly transport in a small number of vessels to Coral, which was assaulted and conquered by the predatory Rraey. Somehow, the Rraey are able to predict the trajectory of the vessel's skip drives (a feat that should not be possible) and use this knowledge to destroy the fleet. Perry's quick thinking allows him and a small number of others to escape in a shuttle craft and make for the planet's surface, where they are shot down and crash violently. Perry is left for dead, only to be rescued by the mysterious "Ghost Brigades", the Special Forces units of the CDF. Perry is struck by the sight of the leader of the Ghost Brigades rescue team, Jane Sagan, an apparent clone of his dead wife Kathy.

After being repaired, Perry tracks down Jane Sagan, who turns out to have been grown using Kathy Perry's DNA, as legally allowed by her letter of intent to join the CDF. Unlike John, Jane has no memories of her previous life, but upon learning of Kathy, Jane seeks to learn more from John about being a regular born ('realborn') person and what kind of life one can have outside the CDF. Jane manipulates her chain of command to promote John to an advisory role (as a full lieutenant) to gather information from the Consu during a ritualistic meeting to share information. Perry discovers that the Rraey have received tachyon technology from the Consu, allowing them to predict the location of their ships. Perry also manipulates command to get the last two of his friends from the 'Old Farts' transferred to Military Research. Jane and John then participate in a Special Forces operation in an attempt to capture or destroy the borrowed Consu technology in advance of a major invasion on Coral. John is instrumental in the successful outcome of the battle, in particular, saving the data relating to the machines, which are destroyed, as well as the life of the unit commander, Jane; however, in the aftermath of the battle he loses track of Jane, and she is returned to the insular Ghost Brigades.

At the conclusion of the book, Perry has been promoted to captain following his deeds at Coral and despite the separation, holds hope of reuniting with Jane when their terms of service conclude.


Skip Drive[edit]

Old Man's War introduces a new form of FTL interstellar travel called a Skip Drive. This is a misnomer because it is not a drive system at all as it has nothing to do with acceleration. The Skip Drive takes an object, like a space ship, and punches a hole in space and places the object at its destination in a new, essentially identical universe. There are limits on the skip drive due to the characters not knowing all there is to know about how it works. The limitations are as follows:

  • The object skipping must not be near a major gravity well
  • The object skipping cannot skip out too far.

The Colonial Union and other governments use devices called skip drones to communicate. These skip drones are essentially computers equipped with skip drives. A ship or satellite will launch one of these devices away from local gravity wells and skip to its target locale and download its information to the local people.

More advanced races, notably the Consu, have a more complex understanding of skip drives and can even detect ships skipping into a system.


The BrainPal is a neural implant that allows members of the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) to send and receive data, including speech, battle plans and much more. CDF soldiers use their BrainPals to translate alien languages, watch classic cartoons, and read old books, among much more.

A BrainPal allows a CDF soldier to operate colonial technology by thought alone. A CDF rifle can only be used by someone with a BrainPal.

To the members of the Ghost Brigades the BrainPal does much much more: it provides a synthetic consciousness that allows the newborn soldiers to function until their own identities develop. This gives people who meet Special Forces the impression that they know everything. When presented with a situation that is unfamiliar to the newborn soldier, the BrainPal loads the relevant and important information directly into the mind at an amazing rate.


The MP-35, also known as "empee", is the main infantry weapon used by the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The weapon features self assembling and self repairing capabilities, the ability to interface with BrainPal, and ammunition composed of nano-robotic bullets able to transform immediately into any type of projectile desired, including bullets, incendiaries, explosives, and beams.[5] These features make it superior to conventional weapon types, as it solves the problem of excessive weight associated with carrying multiple weapons, weapon jamming, and enemy use.[5] The weapon proved to be very versatile and adaptable in the battlefield, as shown in Perry's first battle against the Consus where he took full advantage of the weapon's adaptability and used BrainPal to program a sequence of fire that exploited the enemies' weakness to win the battle.


The beanstalk is a space elevator, built by the CDF, connecting Earth and the CDF space station. The space elevator, officially built to transport colonists and CDF recruits to space, displayed the CDF's power and technological prowess. To Earth's inhabitants, the space elevator defied logical physics and was extremely impractical. Henry hypothesized that the entire concept of the Beanstalk was taken from another alien species. In real life, John Scalzi notes that the feasibility and practical application of a space elevator is speculative.[6] A space elevator, designed and built today using a cable made of nano carbon-tubes, would most likely be defective and break.[7] However, a recent study done by Rice University shows that the strength of carbon nanotubes is surpassed by a material called carbyne, which, if can be massed produced, would be a better alternative to carbon nanotubes.[8]

Modified bodies and consciousness transfer[edit]

In the early days of human colonization it became clear that human soldiers were not cut out for fighting the endless hordes of alien aggressors.The spirit was willing, but the flesh was found wanting. Humans were not strong enough, tough enough or fast enough to compete with the countless xeno breeds that desired the eradication of the human race. Humanity was saved by two technologies: the ability to grow an engineered human body to maturity in a few months and the ability to transfer a consciousness from an old body to the new one (provided that the brains are identical). This tech is the foundation of the Colonial Defense Force, allowing them to recruit senior citizens from Earth and transfer their minds to new super-soldier bodies. The most noticeable features of the engineered bodies include chlorophyll enhanced dermis for energy absorption, the above mentioned brainpal, yellow eyes that appear like a cat's eyes for enhanced vision.


The Colonial Defense Forces use nanotechnology in almost every aspect of their military operations. Combat armor is made from interlinked nanobots, medical nanobots perform surgeries and help to regrow limbs, and the very blood of the CDF soldier has been replaced by a nanotech solution called "smartblood" that does everything that blood can do, only better (such as holding one's breath for over six minutes), and a few things that blood can't do (like explode on command). The primary infantry weapon, the MP-35 or "empee", assembles its ammunition on demand from a block of raw materials (with six types of ammo: rifle, shot, grenade, missile, flamethrower and microwave beam), and can use its ammunition block for self-repair.

Alien Species in "Old Man's War"[edit]


The Consu are a fierce and highly advanced, though zealous, alien race. They believe in helping deserving races reach "Ungkat", a state of perfection for a whole race. [9] [10] The Consu are the most advanced alien race presented in the Old Man's War.[11] Unlike other alien species, their home world uses a dyson sphere around one of their suns to harness all energy leaving the dwarf star. This energy is used to power an impenetrable shield that surrounds their home system. They possess technology such as tachyon detectors that even the CDF can't reverse engineer or fully understand, which was the reason for the Rraeys being nearly invincible against the CDF. They are the only alien species able to do so, making them far superior in weaponry and technology than any other alien species. Because they are the most technologically advanced out of all the alien races presented in this book, when they fight battles, they use weapons technology similar to their opponent to keep the battles fair.[12] They rarely meet with outsiders and any Consu that does meet with an outsider gets killed and shot into a black hole so that their atoms can't defile any other Consu. The Consus believe in staying pure from any lesser alien race than them, so they send criminals to meet with outsiders so that high ranking Consu don't have to be killed when the meeting is over and undesirable Consu can be killed instead.


The Covandu are a liliputian species and, as such, can be much more difficult to hit in combat due to their small target size. Covandu are a strange alien species, both in terms of form and psychology. The Covandu are an alien species that are very similar to humans besides the fact that the tallest of them are an inch tall. They are very gifted in the arts specifically poetry and drama. They are just as aggressive as humans when it comes to planetary real estate. Biologically the Covandu differ from humans and are immune to a virus that forced humans to abandon a colony. The Covandu being immune took occupation of the planet and colonized it causing conflict 63 years later when humans found a vaccine to the virus and tried to return. [13]


The Rraey are a species described in Old Man's War as being considerably less advanced than the CDF. They consider humans as a part of a "balanced breakfast" and are even known to have celebrity chefs showing how to best butcher a human. They became a serious problem for the CDF after acquiring technology from the Consu to predict the trajectory of a vessel's skip drives, a feat that was previously considered impossible. The Rraeys are an alien species that resembles more of a bird than a human. [14] The Rraey are physically described in The Ghost Brigades as being roughly the same size and shape as humans and bilaterally symmetrical, although their knees bend the opposite way. Their eyes and ears wrap all the way around their head implying that they have 360 degree vision. They developed a craving for humans, going as far as creating many dishes for different parts of the body. They are a few decades behind the CDF in terms of technology and weaponry, but nonetheless, still considered a threat to the CDF. The skip drive detection device given to them by the Consu enabled them to wipe out an entire fleet of CDF ships without any casualties to their own.


Whaidians are a strange alien species, both in terms of form and psychology. The Whaidians are an alien species that have an appearance similar to that of a "cross between black bear and a large flying squirrel." Their home consists of small planets that are linked together. They are artistically gifted and are nearly as technologically advanced as the CDF. For this reason they are targeted by the CDF and their spaceport is completely destroyed by a fleet of CDF ships. [15]


The main theme on which Old Man's War was based was military science fiction but themes of the ethics of life extension, friendship, marriage, the significance of mortality, what makes one human, and individual identity are present within the novel.[16][17] These themes are common throughout the novel starting off with the theme of aging. Aging plays its biggest role near the beginning of the novel with the CDF being able to find a way to reverse the effects of aging.[17] The themes of marriage and friendship define and add in depth characterization to John Perry by showing how much he loved his wife and later are intensified when Jane is introduced.[17][18] When it comes to identity and humanity John Perry is the focus of attention and his characteristics by the end of the novel whether one believes John Perry is or is not human.[16][19]

Almost all of these themes are due to the characters which are developed within the novel. Scalzi states that he was influenced by Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and modeled his books format after Heinlein’s novels.[19][20] He wanted to make the story as sympathetic as possible to the reader in which one can understand events such as being in a war. Scalzi took what he learned about Heinlein and made his findings into four lessons about characters and how to create a novel centered on the characters. These lessons are that a story should only exist for its characters, make room in the characters for the reader, make the characters talk like people, and make the characters act like people. His novel's themes were based on the four lessons in which to make a character as connectable as possible while still keeping his theme of space military.[20]


Appearances in other works[edit]

A character can be seen reading the book in an episode of the science fiction television series Stargate Universe,[21] as a shout-out to Scalzi in his role as creative consultant on the show.[22]

SyFy is planning to make a TV series based in the OMW's universe.[23]

Public reaction[edit]

Old Man's War was well received both domestically and globally. Many readers thought it to be a well-written and original piece of literature that avoided the major cliches of the science fiction genre.[24] Old Man's War was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006[25] but lost to the novel Spin,[26] written by Robert Charles Wilson. Old Man's War was ranked #1 on a Tor.com reader poll as the best science fiction and fantasy novel of 2000–2010.[27] In 2012 it was voted #1 on the Locus online reader poll for best science fiction novel of the 21st century,[28] and in 2011, Old Man's War was listed 74th on the NPR.com reader poll of the Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books/series for 2011.[29]


  1. ^ Scalzi, John (2005-01-01). Old Man's War. Tor Books. ISBN 0-7653-0940-8. 
  2. ^ "2006 Hugo Awards". Hugo Awards. 
  3. ^ Deadline: Paramount Buys 'Old Man's War' For Wolfgang Petersen And Scott Stuber
  4. ^ Cover Reveal: The End of All Things
  5. ^ a b Scalzi, John (2011). "The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day 13: First-Person Shooter Games". blog. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  6. ^ Scalzi, John (2003). "Reader Request Wrapup". blog. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  7. ^ Pugno, Nicola (2006). "On the Strength of the Carbon Nanotube-based Space elevator Cable: From Nanomechanics to Megamechanics". "Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter." (IOP Science). Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  8. ^ Liu, Mingjie (2013). Carbyne from first principles: Chain of C atoms, a nanorod or a nanorope?. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Rice University, Houston, Texas 77005, USA: Rice University. Retrieved 3 November 2013. 
  9. ^ Montgomery, Mitch (2013). "Surreal Time Press". blog: Surreal Time Press. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  10. ^ "Overview: Old Man's War Series by John Scalzi (Old Man's War #1, The Ghost Brigades #2)". blog. 2012. Retrieved 22 October 2013.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  11. ^ Hilica. "Overview: Old Man's War Series by John Scalzi (Old Man's War #1, The Ghost Brigades #2)". Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  12. ^ Carey, Elisabeth. "Old Man's War". New England Science Fiction Association. Retrieved 2 November 2013. 
  13. ^ Scalzi, John (2005-01-01). Old Man's War. Tor Books. pp. 186, 187. ISBN 0-7653-0940-8. 
  14. ^ Atwood, Jeff (2013). "Does Scalzi describe what the Rraey look like?". blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  15. ^ Scalzi, John (2007). Old Man's War. 
  16. ^ a b Wagner, Thomas. "Old Man's War Review". SF Reviews. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  17. ^ a b c Maki, Kiirstin. "Old Man's War Review". Bluepixie. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  18. ^ Mackey, Allan. "My Thoughts On OLD MAN’S WAR". http://allanmackey.com. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  19. ^ a b Hogan, Ron. "Meet John Perry: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War". TOR. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  20. ^ a b John, Scalzi. "Lessons From Heinlein". Whatever. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  21. ^ WRITTEN BY Joseph Mallozzi & Paul Mullie, DIRECTED BY Alex Chapple (May 21, 2010). "Subversion, Transcript by Callie Sullivan". Stargate Universe. Season 1 EPISODE NUMBER 118. SyFy. http://www.gateworld.net/universe/s1/transcripts/118.shtml. "GRAHAM: Not to worry, sir. (He holds up a paperback book.) I came prepared."
  22. ^ Scalzi, John (2010-05-21). "Product Placement". Whatever. Retrieved 2010-07-15. 
  23. ^ SyFy adapting futuristic military drama
  24. ^ "Old Man's War". Retrieved 11 Dec 2013. 
  25. ^ Scalzi, John. "Whatever". whatever.scalzi.com. John Scalzi. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013. 
  26. ^ Cowie, Jonathan. "Old Man's War". concatenation.org. Jonathan Cowie. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013. 
  27. ^ "Best SFF Novels of the Decade Poll Update 01/14". tor.com. 14 Jan 2011. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013. 
  28. ^ Kelly, Mark (29 Dec 2012). "Locus Online: 2012 All-Centuries Polls Results". www.locusmag.com. www.locusmag.com. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013. 
  29. ^ Neal, Chris (11 Aug 2011). "Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books". NPR.com. NPR.com. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013. 

External links[edit]